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'It's time to impose quality design to create better inner-city places to shop'

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When the last Tory government issued Planning Policy Guidance Note 6, many people in the urban regeneration world heaved a giant sigh of relief.

Within just five years of Nicholas Ridley letting the market rip, out-of-town shopping space had increased five-fold, tearing the heart out of many secondary town centres. The advent of PPG6, with its sequential test favouring in-town retail, soon extinguished this out-of-town explosion.

As the early '90s recession gave way to healthier economic growth, the predatory retail development market started eyeing up citycentre locations in earnest. In the past two years, CABE has seen a number of major shopping centre schemes, including Birmingham, Nottingham, Oxford, York, Bristol and Chester.

The fundamental issue is almost always the same: to what extent should retail developers be allowed to impose alien megablock development on the complex fabric of our urban centres? We are told such designs are an inevitable product of market forces. If city authorities do not acquiesce, retailers will go elsewhere.

In some cases, for example Hammersons at The Oracle in Reading, a developer's commitment to quality was thankfully already in place. But an enlightened developer may well suffer for the cause. Sacrificing short-term return on capital for a belief in long-term retention of value may not satisfy the footloose shareholder, when quicker and richer pickings are at hand.

In many locations, CABE experience is that the design process quickly becomes a war of attrition, with organisations such as our own seeking to bolster the local planning authority, to insist upon quality public spaces, continuity of street patterns and sensitive servicing provision, while being threatened with developer withdrawal at every turn.

Clearly, one of the key factors here is to educate the retailers, to make good design occupierdriven as well as planning-driven.

Vittorio Radice, chief executive at Selfridges, talks about creating theatres of consumption. His company has already recognised that the experience starts outside the revolving doors. We need to use such patrons to spread the message that good design can mean more footfall, and therefore greater turnover. And we need to collect the empirical evidence to back that up. There may be a role for government in this. We have supported local planners by providing national design guidance on housing and transport.

When a proposed development is going to occupy almost a quarter of a city centre's retail environment, as is the case currently in Bristol and Nottingham, shouldn't government have something to say about how that impact is managed? After Better Places to Live, it's now time for Better Places to Shop.

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